Despite High Turnout, Few Polling Problems

By Christian Davenport and Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Huge turnout gave local election systems a major test yesterday, leading to lines that in some places lasted hours. But despite scattered glitches -- machines that malfunctioned, ballots that got wet, poll workers who didn't show up on time -- officials reported no major voting problems in the Washington area.

"The voters were able to get through the process with relative ease," Maryland deputy elections chief Ross Goldstein said.

"I am very pleased it has turned out so smoothly," said Linda Lindberg, the Arlington County general registrar.

Many had feared chaos because voter rolls were swollen with new names. Virginia, which had added 500,000 registered voters since 2004, was projecting 70 to 80 percent turnout from a total of 5 million, with about 10 percent voting absentee. Maryland was expecting 85 percent turnout from 3.4 million registered.

The District also projected massive voting, and there was a more than two-hour delay in releasing results. An official said the elections board probably was being cautious in response to problems with the September primary vote counts.

On a day when the first voters arrived at the polls in pre-dawn darkness and the last left in the rain, election officials said the steps they had taken, including adding poll workers and voting machines, had paid off.

In Prince George's County, the line at a Bowie church was so long -- four hours -- that one voter likened it to Capital Beltway traffic. And when SaVanna Wanzer, an elections captain, arrived at Shepherd Elementary School in Northwest Washington at 6 a.m., an hour before the polling station opened, she found a line that wrapped around the block.

Voters came out in force across the region, especially during the morning rush. Virginia officials said half of the state's electorate had cast ballots by 10 a.m. The long lines that some had expected in the evening didn't materialize.

"We got huge rushes this morning, and with the high number of absentees, that may have taken the pressure off the evening," said Rokey Suleman II, the Fairfax County registrar.

In late afternoon, a federal judge ordered Virginia election officials to hold on to absentee ballots arriving after the Tuesday deadline so he can consider on Monday whether to count them. Republican John McCain's presidential campaign had filed a lawsuit Monday saying that absentee ballots were not mailed on time to many military members overseas.

At George Mason University, students awoke to a hoax e-mail purportedly sent from the school's provost telling them that Election Day was actually Nov. 5. "I don't think anybody bought it," said student Alex Katzenstein, 21. "If you're that out of it, you probably shouldn't be voting anyway."

Maryland's attorney general referred complaints to the U.S. Department of Justice about text messages urging supporters of Democrat Barack Obama to wait until today to vote.

Nancy Rodrigues, secretary of the Virginia State Board of Elections, said she'd received isolated reports of "voter suppression," including complaints about too many law enforcement officials at some polling sites, the loud playing of Rush Limbaugh recordings and overly enthusiastic supporters of some candidates. In southern Virginia, there were reports of ballots soaked by rainwater running off jackets and umbrellas; they were left to dry in secure areas before being tabulated. A Chesapeake polling station had a line of about 1,000 people at one point.

In some places, the lines seemed arbitrary. Alvin Lee, 66, a retired engineer, said he went to the Southport precinct in Alexandria to vote at 10 a.m. and ended up in line for 3 1/2 hours because his name fell in the "H through P" category. It turned out that his third of the alphabet was slammed with voters, while people with names such as Smith sailed through.

At Mount Oak United Methodist Church in Bowie, some people lined up at 3 a.m. to be among the first to vote when the polls opened four hours later. By 7 a.m., 100 people were queued up; the line grew to a four-hour wait by mid-morning. Lines eased after elections officials brought in more equipment.

For some voters, waiting for hours was no problem. In Upper Marlboro, Latisha Hoover, 25, said it was an honor to vote. "Spending an hour of your day to literally make history isn't such a big deal," she said.

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